Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser I Presume?

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Never in SF/F history was there ever a pair of more beloved and honored roguish characters than Fritz Leiber‘s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
“Ill Met in Lankhmar” (F&SF, April, 1970) won both the 1970 Nebula and 1971 Hugo awards in the novella category. Pretty amazing, given that this story was of the lowly sword & sorcery sub-genre of fantasy (the term sword & sorcery is attributed as being coined by Leiber), at a time in SF’s evolution when the Old was being questioned and roundly disparaged and the New was being embraced and was the talk of the town.

“Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.”

So wrote Fritz Leiber on June 4, 1973, in his Author’s Introduction to the second printing of the Ace paperback titled Swords and Deviltry, the “First in the Series of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser Sagas.” The series was collected in five (six?) Ace volumes, the previously published stories arranged in internal storyline sequence, not in first published order (the very first being published in 1940 in Unknown as “Two Sought Adventure,” but in the Second Fafhrd and Gray Mouser Ace series Swords Against Death as “The Jewels in the Forest”).

In the Author’s Note to the Fifth in the series, The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), a novel based on “Scylla’s Daughter,” a novelette first published in 1961 in Fantastic, Leiber describes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser thusly:

“Fafhrd and the Mouser are rogues through and through, though each has in him a lot of humanity and at least a diamond chip of the spirit of true adventure. They drink, they feast, they wench, they brawl, they steal, they gamble…”. “…they’re rogues in a decadent world where you have to be a rogue to survive…”

Physically, this irascible pair is described by Leiber (again from Swords and Deviltry): “Fafhrd’s origins were easy to perceive … he was clearly a barbarian from the Cold Waste…”. “The Mouser’s antecedents were more cryptic and hardly to be deduced from his childlike stature, gray garb, mouse-skin hood shadowing a flat swart face, and deceptively dainty rapier; but somewhere about him was the suggestion of cities…”. Similarly, John Clute and Charles Grant‘s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser “respectively [as] a tall northern barbarian of unbarbaric intelligence and a small, mercurial trickster figure…”.

The magical world in which F&GM inhabit is called Nehwon (i.e. No-when); the city they call home is Lankhmar. Nehwon is constructed by Leiber such that there are doors/portals to other times and places, and several stories have F&GM adventuring to various otherwhens or wheres, such as the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, or running across a “comic German time-traveller” (Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 573).

Poul Anderson, while writing “The Wizard of Nehwon” as a special introduction to the 1974 Ballantine edition of The Best of Fritz Leiber, recalls F&GM, Lankhmar, and their place in fantasy:

“Not only did that charming pair of rogues–the tall Northern barbarian and the small city-bred trickster–launch the author’s career; they are still going strong, to the joy of everybody who appreciates a rattling good fantasy adventure. But by no means are these stories conventional ‘sword and sorcery.’ The world of Nehwon is made real in wondrously imaginative detail, its human aspects as true as in any conscientious job of reporting. To visit the city of Lankhmar is to learn what decadence in fact means; to roam with our vulnerable vagabonds is to experience pity and terror as well as suspense, wry humor, and uproarious hilarity. Here Leiber in his way has done, and is doing, for the heroic fantasy what Robert Louis Stevenson did for the pirate yarn: by originality and sheer writing genius, he revived an ossified genre and started it off on a fresh path.”

Sadly, Fritz Leiber (b. 1910) left this world in 1992. Though readers have a wealth of F&GM stories to reread, or be introduced to for the first time, there have been no new stories of F&GM to come from Leiber’s imaginative pen. The sword and sorcery outpost of fantasy has never been the same.

Enter Michael Swanwick. (A momentary but necessary digression if you please, while I make a connection.) In 1994, a mere two years following Leiber’s demise, Michael Swanwick saw published his highly acclaimed novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (Avon, Jan., 1994). It wowed readers and critics alike with its audacious fusing of dark fantasy and the steam-age, cum Dickens. It brought together traditional fantasy with the mechanical age with such a brilliantly original concept, that it inspired reviewer Faren Miller of Locus to proclaim:

“Eerie…Extraordinary…Dickens meets Detroit. Full of grimy, toiling waifs, dark factories, trolls with boomboxes, and sleek, decadent high elves…Sordid, violent, funny, absurd, angry; by turns as intense in its pleasures as in its pains…Swanwick takes huge risks here, and reaps big rewards.” Or, as Library Journal put it: “Combines cyberpunk grit with dystopian fantasy.”

Swanwick is thus no stranger to taking big risks–bending and mixing genres no one thought compatible–and seeing them pay off. Which brings us back to sword and sorcery. Regular readers of Asimov’s are now familiar with Swanwick’s pair of far future rascals Darger and Surplus (“The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, Oct./Nov. 2001–Hugo-winner Best Short Story; “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport”, Oct./Nov. 2002; and “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play”, July, 2005). On the surface, these stories would seem to have nothing in common with sword and sorcery. After all, Swanwick has set them in some vague, post-disaster, high-tech future, replete with neurological enhancements, genetically modified animals that appear human, and much more. Underneath, however, they have much in common with Fritz Leiber’s unique brand of sword and sorcery–as evinced in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales. Swanwick has done a masterful job of mixing and matching as his stories unfold. Leiber’s Gray Mouser was named after a cat, an animal known for chasing mice–a mouser–and was the more urbane of the original pair of rascals. Swanwick’s “Mouser” is now Darger, full name Aubrey Darger (i.e. Artful Dodger), whose home is London.

Surplus (“The dog’s name was Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux,” but ‘Call me Sir Plus,’ he said…And Surplus he was ever after.”), is a genetically altered dog who hails from the United States and now assumes the Fafhrd role. Swanwick here interjects some dry wit, for Fafhrd was a barbarian (“of unbarbaric intelligence”) from the “Cold Waste” who had traveled to Lankhmar, where he hooked up with the Mouser. The author now transposes this meeting of Leiber’s rogues by having Surplus/Fafhrd traveling from the United States “the Cold Waste,” to Lankhmar/London and joining forces with the reborn Mouser, one Aubrey Darger, the more city-wise “Artful Dodger.”

While the magic in F&GM’s world took them through time-and-place portals, where they met, fought, wenched, and swindled (and got swindled!), with all manner of demons, gods, women, and assorted unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells, it is becoming increasingly clear that, after only the aforementioned introductory trio of S&D adventures Swanwick is following (at least in broad outline, with only three stories from which to draw inference, to see any pattern beginning to emerge) much the same outline that Leiber laid down. F&GM, via the magic world of Nehwon, were able to travel to such unlikely places as the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even had an encounter with a “comic German time-traveller,” just to name a few. Likewise, through the ultra-high-tech science offered in Swanwick’s reborn Nehwon, S&D have already had adventures in London/Lankhmar (“The Dog Said Bow-Wow”), Paris (“The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport”), and Italy (“Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play”), while their ostensible final destination is Russia.

While S&D overtly share many of the same qualities of F&GM–the stealing, gambling, wenching, adventuresome spirit, witty banter, and already some life and death struggles as they emerge from all manner of serious scrapes, there is one final element linking them together on a more fundamental level–and which makes their adventures the ingeniously redesigned Fafhrd and Gray Mouser sword and sorcery tales for the 21st century. And this one element, so excruciatingly clear and simple once glimmed, is Arthur C. Clarke’s now famous third law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Thus, Leiber can have F&GM consorting with wizards such as Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, and at the same time Swanwick has created a high-tech equivalent for S&D. In “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play,” we find them “On a hilltop in Arcadia,…talking with a satyr.” “The satyr’s name was Demetrios Papatragos, and evenings he played the saxophone in a local jazz club.” (Think trolls with boomboxes from The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.) When asked what some passing Africans were doing, the satyr informs Darger that they are African scientists who have come to build the gods; that they have traveled “all the way from Greater Zimbabwe…across the wine-dark Mediterranean and into these romance-haunted hills…”. Well, this project runs afoul due to the evil machinations of the female Head Researcher, who wishes to conquer the world by creating Thanatos, God of Death. The creature is described in this passage:

“The dome of the monastery rippled and stirred. Enormous flaps of translucent flesh, like great wings, unfolded to either side, and the forward edge heaved up to reveal a lightless space from which slowly unreeled long, barb-covered tentacles.”

This passage could have been taken from many a dark fantasy, or more probably Lovecraft, or just about any Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tale. But it wasn’t. Leiber gives us magic wizards; Swanwick scientific wizards. Both conjure the same sorts of evils which their respective characters must battle.

We are fortunate in being able to see Surplus and Darger inherit (or at least borrow for a time) the mantle of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser right before our very eyes. There will never be the likes of Leiber’s philosophical miscreants again. They will always stand alone and apart as unique creations. But in genre-bending sword and sorcery with high-tech super-science in a decadent world of the future, Swanwick has found his own way to pay homage to Leiber’s two greatest fantasy creations, and, as Poul Anderson said of Leiber, it can also be said of Swanwick that “by originality and sheer writing genius, he (is reviving) an ossified genre and start(ing) it off on a fresh path.”

I look forward to each new Surplus and Darger story with renewed excitement. I hope the next one sees print before another two and a half years go by. When that next tale arrives (they’re heading for Byzantium next time), I will read the title and in the back of my mind be thinking with glee, “Ah, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I presume.”